In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used me and persecuted me. I then testified openly to all there what I now first felt in my heart. But it was not long before the enemy suggested, “This cannot be faith; for where is thy joy?” Then was I taught that peace and victory over sin are essential to faith in the Captain of our salvation; but that, as to the transports of joy that usually attend the beginning of it, especially in those who have mourned deeply, God sometimes giveth, sometimes withholdeth, them according to the counsels of His own will.
After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations, but I cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again. I as often lifted up my eyes, and He “sent me help from his holy place.” And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yea, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now, I was always conqueror
At one point in history, following the 1968 merger of The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren Church that became The United Methodist Church, Methodism was substantially, and quietly, steered toward a generic mainline destination. What I am about to report was never prominent in the public discussions before, or after, the merger (emphasis added). In those years, I was on the staff at the Board of Evangelism, and then on the Perkins faculty, and then on the staff of the Board of Discipleship. In those years, some senior denominational executives were informing staff people that what the merger was really about was becoming a “New Church.” These leaders were good people who meant well; like leader-groups in most generations, they convinced themselves that they knew best. So becoming a New Church would involve one major shift: our church would become much less Methodist and much more mainline – like the Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and so on.
We had already drifted in that direction; now we were being navigated in that direction. Ironically, much of Methodism’s theological academy was becoming more Methodist; scholars like Albert Outler, William R. Cannon, and Frank Baker produced the greatest generation of Wesleyan scholarship. But a constellation of denominational executives agreed that they knew better than the early Methodists and their own scholars. The accelerated shift from a Methodist to a mainline identity did not just happen. We were pushed.
Indeed, in those years, the 1970s and 1980s, we managed to become more mainline than our partners. Today, Lutherans are more consciously and recognizably Lutheran, Presbyterians-Presbyterian, and Episcopalians-Anglican, than United Methodists are consciously and recognizably Methodist. We gave up much more than our partners did in the hope that they would welcome us into the mainline club of denominations (9-10).
- While most mainline churches moved from Europe to North America as institutionalized national churches, Methodism did not. We were a renewal movement within the Church of England. In institutionalizing as a mainline church, we left our identity as a vibrant movement behind.
- Drawing on the work of Scott Kisker, Hunter suggests that the shift to mainline “sucked much of the identity, vitality, and reproductive power out of our once-great movement” (10). Hunter provides two quotes from Kisker that are worth repeating here. First, “When we became mainline, we stopped actually being Methodists in all but name.” Second, “For us in so-called mainline Methodism, our ‘mainline’ identity is killing us and we must surgically remove it if we are ever to regain our health” (Hunter, 10).
- Another consequence identified by Hunter might be called our Methodist identity crisis. He suggests that most Methodists have no idea what it means to actually be Methodist. What do we believe that sets us apart and gives us a reason to exist? It has long been cliché that one can be a Methodist and believe whatever she wants. But this poses a variety of problems, not least with regard to evangelism and church preservation (not to mention growth), because “we cannot observe, anywhere, a long line of people eager to join a church that does not know what it believes, or who it is, or so easily changes its mind” (10).
We must begin by recognizing that this tragic situation follows from the widespread efforts to normalize abortion in the United States. Not all will agree with that conclusion, but a variety of factors suggest its accuracy. Since abortion was declared a constitutional right in the landmark case of Roe v. Wade, the pro-choice movement has worked hard to undermine the full personhood of the preborn. We have been told again and again that the child in the womb is a fetus, not a baby. We are told that abortion is not the ending of a life; it is the termination of a pregnancy. This cold and detached terminology is intended to downplay any emotional reaction to abortion.
The problem is that if a preborn child in the eighth or ninth month of gestation does not have the moral status of a person, why should we think a change of geography from inside the womb to outside the womb suddenly establishes personhood? There is no substantive difference between the preborn and the newly born. If we are desensitized to the death of the former, it will lead us to be decreasingly sensitive to the latter. The road from Roe to Gosnell is a downhill slope.
This connection can clearly be seen in a variety of recent arguments made by abortion advocates. In 2012, bioethicists Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva argued in the peer-reviewed Journal of Medical Ethics for what they called “post-birth abortion.” They claimed that newborns, like fetuses, do not have the moral status of a person and, therefore, the killing of a newborn should be permissible even when the newborn has no disability or defect. Upon the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote a piece for Salon.com titled, “So what if abortion ends life?” in which she argued that the child inside the womb is as much a life as the one outside. She did not go as far as Dr. Giubilini and Dr. Minerva by arguing for infanticide, but when you agree that the preborn and the newly born are alive in the same sense, it is a short and logical step from pre-birth abortion to infanticide. More recently, a representative of Planned Parenthood argued to Florida lawmakers that the decision to offer life-saving care to a child born alive after a botched abortion should be left to the mother and her physicians rather than guaranteed by law.